I was munching my way through a hamburger, eating lunch in a little off-campus dive in the college town where I live and thinking about who we are handing the future of our world over to. Not that it matters, really. Generational transformation is never dignified. New Ages will come and I won’t be around to complain. Nevertheless, I wondered about the divisions among the latest generation.
This particular burger is dressed with both mustard and mayonnaise, lightly grilled onions, thin slices of moderately hot jalapeno peppers, and a few leaves of crunchy lettuce that cushion a flavorful slab of ground meat served between the two halves of a toasted bun. I could have ordered this burger in a dozen different variation, but I like it in its default configuration, as modern terminology would classify it. It’s the refined version of the burger that I enjoyed in Josie’s way back in the 1950’s when Ginny Smith smiled and served me a few more fries than I was strictly entitled to. In that day and time, that was the way the burger came. No one asked how you wanted it dressed.
In Josie’s the local radio station blasted away, numbing our ears with a mindless stew of unfaithful lovers and little Nash Ramblers. The smoke made my eyes water, and the perfumed hair spray that glued sculpted domes of hair to the tops of girl’s heads made me sneeze. Nevertheless, over all that bedlam, we talked and dreamed of many things that we might do with our lives. Our imaginations were lively because we hadn’t been shown very much. Making decisions loomed more important than selecting between choices, of which we had few. Korea was an immediate and haunting past and the Russians had declared that they would bury us.
I am from the age of “Our Town.” I had read Samuel Clemens and knew what Huck Finn was talking about. I understood that we ought to be scared when the Cuban Missile Crisis broke. I was too cynical to embrace the Age of Aquarius in which all religions were to coalesce and the individual mind freed from ignorance and delusion. I saw too many individual journeys begin, not with a new consciousness, but with a drug-induced confidence that somehow Spirit would heal the people of many nations and many tongues and that a new race of super-conscious human truth-seekers would rule the earth. Humbug, but not without some merit. I do have some idealism left in me. For many, the shock of embracing the aftermath of the war in Vietnam overturned the idealistic notion of individually seeking a “true” path in life.
What I like to call the “Age of Gregarious” was born after Vietnam. In spite of the rhetoric about individual rights and choices, people flocked to the safety that they were told lay in belonging to the herd and associating with others of our own kind (the dictionary’s words, not mine). When the Internet hit it big, people were primed to plunge into the ultimate, plastic existence, the new Tower of Babble. Safe at last among their own kind. Unidentifiable among the infinite choices. Lulled by the deceptive attraction of anarchy.
Back in current time, I watched students, one couple in particular, drinking their iced tea and eating their sandwiches, eyes glued to the TV set hanging in one corner. They had spent considerable time at the counter trying to decide exactly how they wanted their sandwich delivered. On the screen, a ten year old boy was explaining to an audience of adults why they didn’t need to be afraid of a tank filled with the floating parts of a manikin. “They’re not real body parts; it’s a magic trick,” the boy says, and relief passes across the faces of the men and women waiting for this precocious child to explain to them why they should feel safe.
Relief seemed to pass across the faces of the two students. Their heads nodded in understanding. The evil of the unknown had been averted by the child hero. It seemed that I, alone, wondered why none of the adults walked over to the tank and fished out a wooden limb. There was a dimly illuminated metaphor here. Could it be that their relief was about the youngest, least experienced human in the room making decisions so that they could be left to make choices among colors of shirts and styles of running shoes? Could the perception be that the judgment of the freshest and least cynical of the crowd would be the most trustworthy to follow?
I wondered how long these people would last in Afghanistan. Would they Google their rights as soldiers if the Sergeant yelled at them to get their heads down? Thank goodness we’ll have a group of wiser young men and women who won’t be taken in by the inverted values often portrayed on TV. They will return from overseas with the wisdom bought from making hard decisions when there are very few choices. They probably won’t be so impressed with the numbers of choices offered at the Mall; they might be more concerned about the crime rate. They’ll probably order plain coffee and enjoy the burger as it comes from the kitchen. Sergeant, please keep them safe.